A new documentary answers every question the public has about sexual harassment
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A new documentary answers every question the public has about sexual harassment

'But What Was She Wearing?' is an honest and expansive look at the sheer extent of sexual harassment suffered by women every day.

By Linda Beatrice Louis

Published on :

Poignant, painful and eye-opening. But What Was She Wearing?, Vaishnavi Sundar’s detailed documentary on sexual harassment in India, blows the lid wide open on the sheer extent of the sexual harassment suffered by women every day. For the first time, we have an exposition of not only “sexual harassment” as a concept, but the grinding, bile-inducing reality of the numerous behaviours that comprise sexual harassment. It takes a clear, no-frills look at the much-vaunted law against sexual harassment in India, exploring the number of issues that victims still face in achieving a safe workplace, and the administrative rigour of it all.

Methodical and haunting, the movie answers every question the public has posed with respect to sexual harassment—every misgiving, every myth perpetuated in a patriarchal society. A pitiless exposure of the attempts at institutional responses to this situation, the film’s detailed and moving walk through the lives of women blighted by this scourge shines light on behaviour that is as pervasive as it is fluid, seeping into every social setting and every daily task in a way most of us would not imagine.

Doctors, directors and therapists—women who don’t exist in the typical office setting, with an established hierarchy, or whom one expects would not face the everyday risks that we imagine—talk of the myriad and creative ways in which, despite every precaution and safety measure, they experience harassment and find themselves helpless. The stories and circumstances reveal a world where women, constantly alive to the threats they face, attempt to set boundaries. In a world where reputations and good relations matter, a woman’s professional growth is repeatedly stunted by her refusal to succumb to the constant harassment. Their tales of laying down ground rules, only to have them breached by people who are in positions of trust and power or those who seek their attention under the guise of needing help, reveal a problem of entitlement and sexual demand that society fails to even acknowledge in any meaningful way, instead choosing to normalise and even consider humorously any behaviour that falls short of rape.

But the value of the film lies not only in the stories of harassment it sheds light on, but also in its piercing look at our cultural straitjacketing of boys and men into the mentality that produces serial harassers or predators, while simultaneously rendering invisible the harsh reality of abuse against boys and men, who are not expected to be victims. It illustrates the depressing transition from locker-room talk that objectifies and degrades women, social insistence on toughness girded by male superiority that devalues male sensitivity and compassion, to the final stage of being predators who don’t take no for an answer and instead seek revenge on women who reject their advances. Thus, the film also brings home a vital truth that society chooses to acknowledge in favour of short-term solutions—that this is not a problem that can be solved purely by legal and institutional responses, but a social and cultural change is more vital and indispensable than ever.

In expanding its focus not just on the act of harassment but the devastation that follows, the film reveals the manipulative tactics perpetrators use in their quest to seek revenge on and delegitimise their accusers while setting in motion circumstances that would go on to restrict their life in other ways—through professional, legal and institutional intimidation.

The film is a must-watch not only because of its honest and expansive look at sexual harassment but for its detailed look at what sexual harassment actually is, through interviews with actors and film personalities, writers and activists, and of the scale of entitlement that men largely subsist within our society. The film also delves into the idea of how romance is created, sustained and perpetuated by a male-driven idea of sexual conquest concretised by male celebrities who act out predatory narratives in media, in film and in comedy. This reduces harassment to a joke or a desire and in the public view, perpetuates and legitimises similar behaviour from common men who then rush to the defence of equally guilty peers. In such an environment, sexually coercive tendencies are emboldened, and perpetrators revel in a psychological sense of security: that even if they are reported, they won’t be stigmatised the way women are.

The documentary is probably one of the most comprehensive looks at the law itself, and what it will take for the law to function as intended. With practical suggestions and insights for the way forward, it isn’t just for those interested in combatting violence against women. It is for everyone who wishes for a more just, open and fair society.

Synopsis of But What Was She Wearing?

In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, an Indian social worker hailing from the Kumhar caste in rural Rajasthan, was gang-raped by upper-caste men for having the temerity to intervene and stop the child marriage of an infant. The subsequent acquittal of the accused in connivance with the State machinery outraged India and galvanised women’s activism, leading to the Vishaka Guidelines and, subsequently, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013. In this feature-length documentary shot by an all-women international crew, director Vaishnavi Sundar juxtaposes the law on paper with the ground realities, through this first-of-its-kind log of stories and experiences of over two dozen Indian women; tales of sexual violence that they face—from opulent corporate offices, to construction sites and manual scavenging—and their fight for justice against an obstinate patriarchal State. But What Was She Wearing? attempts to portray the impotence of this paper-law and the impossible odds Indian women are up against in the pursuit of justice.

Here is a link to the trailer.

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